Thursday, 14 September 2017

Encounters with Giacometti - Standing in the Last Room

This is my final encounter with Giacometti in this Ellul season (well more or less). The full series is here.

The picture is of the last room of the exhibition that has just closed at the Tate Modern. We’ve been stripped back, pulled apart and generally forced to confront our fragility in the most vivid way imaginable. And now this. 

The curatorial notes - as is so often the case in last rooms - tell the story of the death of the artist. Giacometti died as a result of bronchitis in 1967. But the sculptures are not of a man slipping gently into the good night. They are giant - maybe 12ft tall, but more than that they have a stability and a power, almost a pride. Two are  - in yogic-speak - in tadasana - mountain pose.

In the summer of 2006, I was teaching a series of classes on leading Rabbis of the twentieth century. I was, of course, planning to teach on Rabbi Louis Jacobs, founding Rabbi of New London. And then Louis passed away. The Shiva took place on the night I was due to teach that class and I was invited by Louis’ children to give the eulogy (which you can read here. I concluded with this extract from my first Rabbi’s work, Tree of Life;

“The correct Jewish response to suffering seems to be expressed in the rule that when a mourner rends his garment in grief at the death of a near relative, he should do so while standing, not while sitting. As Dr Hertz puts it, ‘According to ancient Jewish custom, the ceremony of rending our garments when our nearest and dearest on earth is lying dead before us, is to be performed standing up. This teaches, meet all sorrow standing upright. The future may be dark veiled through the eyes of mortals … but hard as life’s terms may be, life never dictates unrighteousness, unholiness, dishonour.’ If this interpretation is considered too homeletical, the rule about standing upright might have been intended to denote a rising to the tragic occasion.”

We should rise to the tragic occasion. And this last room does that.

As seems to happen so often, when one starts to see a motif twice, it starts to appear everywhere.

The heart of last week’s Torah reading is a list of 98 curses, as black as you could imagine. The opening verse of this week’s reading is ‘You are standing, today.’ Rashi suggests that these two passages appear next to one another since having heard these curses the children of Israel turned green. And Moses comforted them saying, ‘You are standing here today - despite everything that has gone - you are still capable of arising.’ The Hebrew word used, for standing, is not the prosaic word Amad, it’s the rarer word - Nitszav - which suggests a willful strength, a spiritual verticality - the sort of standing tall a wheelchair bound person can do every bit a well as one with use of their legs. Trust Hebrew to have a word for standing existentially strong in the face of ... everything.

At the end of the Amidah on weekdays is Tachanun - a space for a personal petition - we sit, resting our head on our forearms, in a gesture of complete supplication, and pour out our fears and needs. At the end of Tachanun we stand for a Kaddish. But, stunningly, the instruction to ‘stand’ comes before the Kaddish itself, and just as we recite this line, ‘And we do not know what to do’ It’s Rabbinic chutzpah at its finest. If you don’t know what to do if the mortal condition feels too dark and hopeless... STAND. Trust the Rabbis to instill in us the ability to find strength in a fragile world.

This kind of standing tall is not a rejection of the fragility of our existence. It is a response that both accepts and responds with pride to our own mortal condition. It’s a glorious response and sometimes the only response with which we are left. Giacometti got this absolutely right.

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